“…Would you be kind enough to ask Case to send me without a moment’s delay one dozen of my card photghs. The ones I want are those seated, with cane & black cravat He knows the ones I liked the best…This is very important As there are several parties whom I would like to give one.”
– Letter from John Wilkes Booth to Orlando Tompkins dated February 9th, 1865
Before assassinating President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was already a famous man. He was a leading actor of the American stage and his face was well known to a generation of theater goers. He was a handsome man, even being called the “handsomest man in Washington” in the hours leading up to the assassination. Women swooned over his looks and photographs of him were sought after. Booth not only gave photographs of himself as gifts and remembrances, but photographers and gallery owners sold his image to the public. After Booth assassinated Lincoln, demand for his picture increased by a factor of ten. Newspapers were full of advertisements offering the sale of his picture.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and others in the government likely found this clamoring for the assassin’s picture shameful and so, on May 2nd, the Middle Department of the Army issued a general order essentially banning the sale of Booth’s image in Washington and Maryland:
“The sale of portraits of any rebel officer or soldier, or of J. Wilkes Booth, the murderer of President Lincoln, is forbidden hereafter in this department. All commanding officers and provost-marshals are hereby ordered to take possession of such picture wherever found exposed for sale, and report the names of the parties so offending, who will be liable to arrest and imprisonment if again guilty of a violation of this order.”
Sale of Booth’s photographs outside of this department’s jurisdiction continued and, by May 26th, this order was rescinded and images of Booth were allowed to be sold in Washington again. Soon, carte-de-visites, or small card photographs, of Lincoln’s assassin filled album books nationwide.
In 1979, authors Richard and Kellie Gutman published the book, John Wilkes Booth Himself. By working with many private collectors and institutions, the Gutmans had identified and collected all the known images of John Wilkes Booth and published them together in a volume. The book contained 44 images. Four of them are of illustrations or paintings based on a photo and one image, Gutman 1, has been proven not to be of Booth but rather of a friend of his, Richard M. Johnson. This leaves the book with 39 photographs of John Wilkes Booth. The Gutmans’ book is rare and highly sought after today as only 1,000 copies were printed in 1979. Since the release of their book, other photographs have been discovered of John Wilkes Booth. There are also small variations on the known photographs that can be found due to the type of camera used (stereoscopic) and small movements Booth made during a particular sitting of certain pose. The numeration given by the Gutmans in their book is the most common way to organize and differentiate between Booth’s many photographs.
The images below come from a variety of sources with the bulk of them stemming from online auctions. While sites like eBay can provide a nice showcase of original Booth images, they are also ripe with laughable images of mustachioed, curly haired gentlemen “proven” to be Booth. Most of these fakes are ignored but, occasionally, they attract farsighted fools and bring their crafty sellers a payday. The images in this Picture Gallery are established and universally agreed upon images of Booth.